Friday, September 30, 2011

The Birthday Burger

I’ve often written here about food being integral to a celebration. For me and for many.

This, I believe, is most definitely true for birthdays. The celebration of another year past is always made better by a satisfying meal.

This week I celebrated a birthday. Not mine…my sister’s. She turned the big 5-0 on Wednesday. And she wanted to spend it with me, which honored me greatly.

It got me to thinking about the way we celebrated birthdays when we were kids. We got to pick our birthday dinner, which, for me, was always manicotti. It was my favorite thing.

Dad didn’t make it very often. It was a special occasion dish. So it made birthdays feel very special.

Before you ask, no, we’re not Italian. We’re mostly a mutt mixture from the British Isles. But for some reason, manicotti became soul food to me. :o)

Dad would make a filling of ricotta, spinach and ground beef, combining the two filling recipes that came on the box. Sauce was the Smith family recipe…a jar of prepared sauce, some tomato sauce, tomato paste, garlic and onion powder, dried herbs. He might or might not have started with some frozen leftovers.

When we were little he followed the instructions, boiling the noodles and filling them when they were soft. Such a pain! Then, before they started putting out the ‘ready to bake’ variety, he would stuff the shells uncooked, add water to the sauce to give the noodles something to soak up, and baked it. Easier by far!!

Of course, birthdays would not be complete without cake. That was mom’s territory. And there was always something spectacular. Winnie the Pooh, Holly Hobby, Marvin the Martian, a piano, books, 3-D dolls…you name it, my mom made it into a cake. And not only was it beautiful, it was damn tasty, too.

Well, there was no manicotti or beautiful cake this week for my sister’s birthday, but there was some really, really good food.

At my sissy’s request, we went to Red Mill Burgers on Phinney Ridge. It has always been high on my list of best burgers in Seattle. The Bleu Cheese and Bacon Burger is to die for. It’s so cool to order your burger and look over at the grill to see the wall of bacon waiting to be paired with a patty of beef.

This burger is just the right amount of juicy. It’s not too messy at first, but after three or four bites, you get past the point where the crispy edges of the toasted bun can no longer hold in the sloppy, melty blue cheese and the juice running from the perfectly meat.

They add tomato and lettuce, but don’t add mustard or ketchup. Those are on the table so you can dress your burger yourself. I appreciate that. I’m not a huge fan of ketchup. I like a little occasionally, but if I have a choice, I wouldn’t have it on my burger.

Oh…it was a heavenly lunch. My sister and I couldn’t even finish our burgers. Good thing we just shared the onion rings (which are apparently legendary…they were pretty fantastic).

We started the day with pedicures at Gene Juarez and ended our time together with coffees from Cloud City Coffee in Maple Leaf.

It was a short time, but it was great fun. We had some amazing food, had a lot of laughs, cried a little bit. And I’m sure Mom and Dad were around somewhere. They would never miss a birthday.

It was a privilege to share such a milestone day with her. And I’ve got six years to figure out what we’re going to do for my 50th!

I love you, Sissy. Happy Birthday!

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Modern Conveniences

Last time we met, I might have mentioned that our stove went out. The oven just crapped out while we were cooking a take-and-bake pizza a couple of Fridays ago.

Since we went through our home warranty service to get the repair done, it took a while for it to happen.

Finally yesterday someone came to fix our stove (Hurray!!). It was just a loose wire, thank goodness. Mr. Appliance (the real name of the repair company) was in and out in about 15 minutes and we had a working stove/oven again!!

But you know what? In this world of convenience food, it is pretty easy to live out of your microwave.

Thank goodness for Costco. They sell boxes of single-serving packets of vegetable yakisoba that are pretty darn tasty. And then there are the chicken nuggets. Which we are actually very fond of. They remind me of when Nancy was pregnant and couldn’t handle cooking smells. We ate a lot out of our microwave back then, too. :o)

Another bit of convenience we acquired because of the stove going out was an electric kettle. This is something I have always wanted, but could never quite bring myself to spend the money.

Now I don’t know how I ever lived without one. The water boils so fast and cleanup is dead easy. Bloody fantastic.

Sorry for going a bit Brit on you. Electric kettles remind me of our trip to the UK a few years ago. I’m pretty sure we had a kettle in every B&B we stayed.

Of course, being without certainly makes one appreciate things. I’m looking forward to making egg sandwiches for breakfast tomorrow. I might need to go get some bacon. Mmm…bacon.

But while we’re on the subject of easy meals, I have to mention what I ate while I was in Virginia on business.

I was lucky enough to visit friends in Richmond while I was there. They had me over to their house and we noshed on hot dips and chips for dinner.

I love hot dips. I used to make a parmesan artichoke dip for parties all the time. I have a hard time making it very often any more because it’s mostly mayonnaise. I can eat an whole recipe of it on my own and I really have a hard time justifying eating an entire cup of mayo at a sitting.

At our friends’ house, there was a very tasty spinach-artichoke dip and pita chips. This version had significantly less mayo and thus was (thankfully) not guilt-inducing. I got a lot of veggies that way!

And then there was my favorite…a simple layered dip of cream cheese, refried beans and shredded cheese.

I couldn’t stop eating it. It was so good. The beans were really well flavored (I think they were the Whole Foods store brand). And the best part? All you have to do is open packages, spread out the layers, and bake until bubbly. Now if that isn’t a great emergency party dish, I don’t know what is! Serve it with the scoop Fritos and you will not be able to pry people away from the dish until it is empty. I hurt myself on that stuff.

Alternately, you could use a can of chili instead of the refrieds. An old friend of mine used to do a quick dip that was cream cheese and chili. Put it in a bowl, get it hot in the microwave and you’re done.

Which brings us full circle, doesn’t it? We’re back at the microwave.

I wouldn’t want to use it as my main cooking appliance all the time. But it sure does come in handy sometimes.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Necessity: The Mother of the Crock Pot (or Thank God for Easy Mac)

This week we brought out the crock pot out of sheer desperation. You see, our stove decided to start crackling at us while we were baking a pizza last weekend, so we had to plan to do without it for a while.

Yes, we’ve called for repair, but the warranty company we have a policy through has turned out to be less than responsive. Combine that with a very hectic week at work, and suffice it to say I’m glad we have a crock pot and a microwave.

So we broke out the America’s Test Kitchen book again, this time to make some shredded beef filling for tacos or burritos.

Three pounds of chuck roast, some chili powder, a couple of onions and 9-11 hours yielded us some mighty tasty filling.

One interesting thing about this recipe is that it had me sweat the onions and garlic (along with the chili powder, cumin and coriander and a little vegetable oil) in the microwave for 5 minutes.

What did this do for the recipe? Well, it gave the flavor development a bit of a head start. It also created a little bit of liquid so that the meat ended up covered in this paste of aromatics and spice. It made the house smell wonderful!!

It definitely needed some salt and pepper. I didn’t season the meat very well. I was in a hurry and didn’t want to deal with proper sanitation, so I skipped the salt and pepper on the meat. I won’t make that mistake again.

So this is winner number two from Slow Cooker Revolution.

Once I added a little salt, the meat had great flavor. The chili powder I used was nice and smoky and the cumin added some smoke and zing as well. The finish of a squeeze of lime gave it the bright balance it needed.

We ate it in bowls with tortilla chips, some black bean and corn salsa, shredded cheese and some sour cream.

I think this would make a killer Mexican lasagna filling. Layers of the meat, lots of melty cheese and some good fresh tortillas. Oh yeah, baby. All I’d need is a shot of tequila and a wedge of lime to top it off.

To keep things lively, we also used our microwave a lot. Like I said in the title, thank god for Easy Mac. Little cups of mac and cheese that you cook in the microwave. G really likes them and it makes for easy cleanup as well. And hot dogs cook really well in the microwave, too. Round it out with some frozen veg and G was a happy camper for the whole week.

If I really think about it, we don’t really use our stove much during the week even when it’s working. Between the crock pot and the microwave, we don’t really have to.

Thanks for stopping by! Next week I’ll be traveling for business and will be dining with friends, so that installment will probably make its appearance on Saturday.

Have a great week and a fun Labor Day Weekend!